Surprised by Oxford 2023 Movie Review
Carolyn Weber’s 2013 memoir Surprised by Oxford is curious material for a film adaptation, but it is not surprising the film has been made given its proximity to C.S. Lewis. With recent stage plays like Horse and His Boy and movies like Most Reluctant Convert, we are living through a small renaissance in the study and cultural fascination with Lewis’ works. Weber’s conversion story is peripherally related to that movement, making it good fodder for a low-budget film adaptation.
As we meet her, Carolyn was a student at Oxford College in the 1990s (but the movie pushes the time period to the modern day) who came from an agnostic-Catholic background after suffering the pain of a broken family. As she’s introduced, she’s a brilliant student and a knee-jerk feminist with reservations about men and religion—who is awarded a full-ride at Oxford. While studying, she meets Kent Weber, a fellow Oxford scholar and a lifelong Christian who struggles with awkward romantic feelings toward Carolyn and repeatedly attempts to make clumsy advances toward her throughout her school year.
When she discovers Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy and begins learning about his conversion while studying at Oxford, she goes against her instincts and starts reconsidering her adolescent beliefs and ideas. All this while falling in love with the man who introduced those ideas to her and grappling with the stress of her doctorate program and his misplaced emotions.
Surprised by Oxford is certainly commendable for the Christian film genre, given its tendency towards saccharine storytelling, didactic themes, and shallow writing. The film is populated with more-intelligent-than-usual characters that elevate it above the shallow drama it would otherwise be in the wrong hands. It looks very well-made and many of the supporting actors look and act exactly like the sort of people who would teach at an upscale school like Oxford.
Unfortunately, the movie mostly suffers from limited stakes and drama. The film is tentatively structured like a romantic comedy, with Carolyn’s conversion happening in conjunction with her romantic interest in Kent, but it lacks the character writing of a traditional romance story that makes the genre work.
Kent is just a little too squeaky clean and uncomplicated to feel like a meaningful character or a foil for Carolyn’s goals, and most of her character drama just amounts to pedestrian struggles with grad school, repressed doubt, and stress. Her greatest fear just ends up being whether or not she will lose her scholarship. This can work as motivation if the film shows why she is so motivated to become a doctorate, but the film rushes through her motivation as background details to get to the story.
Much like the recent Tolkien biopic, it ends up being more of a relaxed hangout movie than a romantic drama. However, it does benefit from the fact that the movie does not excise its main character’s religious journey, even if that feels somewhat secondary to the romance storyline.
The dialogue marks the film’s strongest feature, if only because the screenwriter has a greater than introductory grasp on classical English literature and is able to write intelligent characters who are sensitive to literary ideas and their implications—although this also comes with a tendency for relying on literary cliches and philosophical arguments that can come off as amateurish in the wrong characters’ mouths (I don’t need to hear for the 1,000th time that Wizard Of Oz is ACTUALLY a metaphor for the Gold Standard).
Much like Most Reluctant Convert, Surprised by Oxford benefits from some beautiful on-location film scenes that raises the film’s production values up a notch and makes it feel more gritty and lived in than the plastic sets and cinematography of PureFlix films.
Thankfully, Surprised by Oxford has more soul in it than a lot of movies. Even in the moments when the character writing and freshman-level dialogue falter, it still benefits from being a story about freshman-level adults working through all the questions they’re asking themselves and feeling less arrogant than God’s Not Dead as a result. I’m not sure it amounts to more than a passing curiosity, but it isn’t boring and will interest a certain kind of Christian film audience.